Two photographs have come to define Saturday’s demonstrations in London: one of a Black man, Patrick Hutchinson, rescuing a white far-right protester, apparently from death; the other of a far-right protester, Andrew Banks, caught with his pants down, urinating next to the memorial for PC Keith Palmer, who was stabbed to death in the Westminster terror attack of 2017.
Both photographs, and the ways they have been framed by politicians and the media, invite a moral (and nominally apolitical) judgment, asking us to draw conclusions about the two men’s contrasting characters. Hutchinson’s actions – and his impressive strength and stature – are an expression of a heroic, cool and noble masculinity. Banks, on the other hand, is at once an anti-patriot and an ugly embodiment of Little England: boorish, vulgar and, in the words of Keir Starmer, ‘beneath contempt’.
Let’s be clear: what makes Banks ‘beneath contempt’, on this view, is not his attending a far-right protest, but his violation of public standards of propriety in urinating next to a memorial. It’s true that his actions neatly expose the contradiction in sacralising the bronze sculptures of Westminster while desecrating the memorial of a man who died defending Westminster from an Islamist terrorist. But it is also true that loutishness appears a greater sin than racism. Despite footage circulating of far-right protesters singing ‘burn the black cunt’ before setting effigies alight, and a war veteran calling for the execution of Sadiq Khan, I have seen no evidence of efforts to trace or investigate these people for hate crimes.
In an interview with ITV News on Sunday, Hutchinson said: ‘It definitely gives me a positive feeling that … together we can change the way things are at the moment. And what we did just embodies that, just to show other people that … it’s not black or white, we’re a human race.’ Admirable sentiments. But the appropriation of them by the right-wing media is a disgrace. The front page of the Sun yesterday featured the famous photograph of Hutchinson, with the headline: ‘It’s not black versus white, it’s everyone versus racists.’
The words are not only a sentimental bromide intended to delegitimise and deradicalise the current movements of Black Lives Matter activism. They are also a cynical attempt to dissociate the Sun and related media from the violent cycle of racism and anti-blackness. In 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, in unequivocal terms, correlated the reporting of the Sun and the Daily Mail with escalating racist violence and hate speech in the UK. If it’s ‘everyone versus racists’, the Sun cannot claim to be on the side of ‘everyone’.
It is just as urgent to reject the idea that ‘it’s not black versus white’. As abolitionism surfaces as the central organising principle of the second wave of Black Lives Matter activism, we need to recognise that one of the things that needs to be abolished is the category of ‘whiteness’ itself. The existence of whiteness is dependent on the subjugation of a racialised other. As such there is no way to extract or preserve whiteness from white supremacy. Without the subjugation of Blacks through a project of racial essentialism, whiteness as a category ceases to exist. Whiteness is not a biological reality, but a description of social relations defined by class, ownership and property rights. Hutchinson’s aim to redeem white individuals of racism is fine, but we cannot redeem whiteness itself.
The Guardian’s interview yesterday with Hutchinson and the four men who helped him is further fuel for this depoliticisation. ‘Maybe it will change the view of racists,’ one of them, Lee Russell, said. ‘I hope it shows that whatever they think of us, we’re cool, we’re good – we just saved your life.’ I wonder where that leaves Black people, or other people of colour, who have no interest in – or capacity or opportunity for – similar acts of heroism; who are not ‘cool’ and ‘good’, but feel righteous hostility towards whiteness and are not interested in diplomacy. Interpersonal acts of sacrifice, forgiveness or kindness cannot be the panacea for racism. And Black activists cannot be required to follow an established code of behavioural and moral conduct. The promotion of respectable Blackness is a gift to white supremacy: it obscures the social relations that define white power by identifying racial aggression as the preserve of a non-respectable, insurgent minority, apparently unrepresentative of a more gentle and tolerant majority of Blacks. I would urge everyone who centres kindness and diplomacy to consider this carefully.
While Hutchinson enjoys a media circus, Banks has been sentenced to 14 days in prison for the crime of ‘outraging public decency’. His actions are an embarrassment for the far right, and evidence that Saturday’s events had less to do with a sense of patriotic duty than with treating racist chauvinism as an opportunity for a brawl and piss up. But leftists shouldn’t rush to celebrate Banks’s sentence. Urinating in public usually carries a fine (if it’s punished at all). What Banks did is repugnant, but does it really merit two weeks in jail? We shouldn’t be too eager to embrace the carceral logic of the state, or accept ‘public revulsion’ (in the words of the sentencing magistrate) as grounds for punishment. British standards of ‘public decency’ could easily work against us, particularly in light of the home secretary’s plans for a 24-hour arrest-to-jail pipeline for those who vandalise statues.
Far-right protesters should be condemned not for individual acts of outraging public decency, but en masse as an expression of the apparatus of white supremacy. And we should resist, too, any narrative that tries to defuse Black Lives Matter activism as non-threatening and essentially about ‘equality’ rather than liberation and abolition.